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US investigating claim Houthis downed drone off Yemen's coast: Report

Downing of MQ-9 Reaper drone would come as Houthis lay claim to forcing the crew of a bulk carrier to abandon ship in the Red Sea
Yemenis brandishing weapons chant slogans and wave Palestinian flags as they march in the Houthi-run capital Sanaa in support of Palestinians, on 16 February 2024 (Mohammed Huwais/AFP)

The US is investigating a claim by Houthi rebels in Yemen that they shot down a US reaper drone on Monday, as tensions in the Red Sea escalate to new heights, according to US media reports.

The Iran-backed Houthis claimed they had downed a US MQ9-Reaper drone over the port city of Hodeida early on Monday morning, with the Pentagon confirming that a US drone had crashed.

“The Yemeni air defenses were able to shoot down an American plane (MQ9) with a suitable missile while it was carrying out hostile missions against our country on behalf of the Zionist entity,” Houthi military spokesman Yahya Sarea said on the social media platform, X.

On Monday, The New York Times and CNN reported that US officials are now investigating the Houthi claim. The Houthis last downed a Reaper drone in November, according to the Pentagon, and attempted to recover the $30m unmanned aerial vehicle.

The MQ9 Reaper drone is a workforce of US intelligence and surveillance but can also be armed with missiles, including a modified hellfire missile equipped with long blades used for targeted assassinations.

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The Houthis have catapulted to global prominence for their daring attacks on commercial and military shipping, in what they say is a response to Israel’s invasion of Gaza.

One of their first acts in November was a brazen seizure by helicopter of the Galaxy leader, a Bahamas-flagged commercial vessel owned by Israeli business tycoon, Rami Ungar.

Since then, the Houthis have broadened their attacks from vessels linked to Israel to commercial and military ships with any ties to the US and UK, in response to US-led air strikes against the group.

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On Saturday, the US said it launched five strikes against Houthi mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, an unmanned surface drone and one unmanned underwater drone.

The latter marks the first time the Houthis have employed an underwater drone, which naval analysts tell Middle East Eye suggests the Houthis have advanced their maritime capabilities.

US strikes against the Houthis have done little to deter the group, and western officials familiar with the matter have told MEE on condition of anonymity that they don’t expect the Houthis to change their actions in response to the strikes.

The Iran-backed group endured years of heavy bombardment by a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia. The Houthis weathered the strikes and displayed their ability to leverage Iranian training and arms to strike as far as Dubai.

Saudi Arabia is now trying to negotiate a ceasefire to the war that would cement the Houthis stranglehold over most populated parts of Yemen, including the capital Sanaa.

If the Houthis did down the Reaper drone, it would come just as they lay claim to one of their biggest maritime victories to date.

On Monday the crew of the Rubymar, a Belize-flagged, UK-registered and Lebanese-operated dry bulk carrier, was forced to abandon ship after a Houthis strike.

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